by Anya Yurchyshyn
We had it once in Cordes-sur-Ciel, and we talked about it for the rest of our trip, and long after we returned. We hadn’t talked about it for a while, but it came up at the restaurant when we were both staring at our food and he mentioned it, and how delicious it was, and I agreed. It was the best he’s ever had, he said. It certainly had been intoxicating, as if the alcohol in the wine hadn’t evaporated during the cooking process. Something else caused us to stumble back to our room, and it wasn’t the drinks either, as we were close to broke and could only afford one bottle of wine to go with the one bowl of stew. We were two eating for one, but neither of us was left wanting. It was a natural adjustment, and we preferred it. At the restaurant, I saw we’d long been two eating for two. I ordered salmon though he’d lost the taste for it, and he’d gotten his duck medium well. We ate in silence, working over the food intended only for ourselves. But when he brought up the stew I pushed my plate away, nauseous with a sudden loss of appetite. As his face hung above his plate, I saw traces of the full we’d been that night in France in the caves of his cheek, and the pink of his lips, and I wanted only that. I always saw our travels together as a thick black line crawling across a map. We took a winding road to get to that meal, stopping at many churches, one that was a secret hideout during World War II. There were underground chambers and walls of stone. We’d pretended to be on a scavenger hunt, looking for a new prize wherever we were. When we found something that delighted us, we let out a loud American “ah-ha!” and made up the riddle that led us there. By the end of the day, everything we wanted to find was inside the other, and we landed on each other’s chests with a triumphant index finger. What I looked for was still there, but I hadn’t gone looking for anything in a while, and what was there was no longer easy to get to. Later that night, after returning from dinner, I knocked on his sternum. “Come out and play? The weather really is lovely.” He had to pack for a business trip. Bones sound surprisingly hollow when you knock on them. His voice went limp when he said goodbye the next morning. I saw on the map that our lines had split. He was performing a pattern of concentric circles, I was going straight and far away. * * * The recipe seemed close. I learned that there are a lot of French stews, and many ways to approach them. This one was consistently listed as being from that region, and when I imagined the ingredients at the end of it all, the flavors burned up our bodies the same way. I found the pot in the back of a restaurant supply store in Chinatown. It was enormous, and sat on my stove’s four burners and hung over its sides. I wanted us to eat for a week and have leftovers to freeze. I’d never cooked anything so complicated. I started Monday evening because the stew had to sit overnight twice. There were hours of chopping carrots, onions, garlic and mushrooms, cubing and browning cold, dark, meat. As I labored over each ingredient, I turned from a chef into an alchemist, every piece blurring into a part of myself once it entered the pot. The slivers of carrots became my fingers, the chunks of beef my organs, the bacon, strips of my skin. I took the next two days off to stir, to sit next to the stove as it simmered, or against the refrigerator door as it cooled. I ate nothing because I wanted nothing but what I was preparing. On my last inspection, the broth had been smooth and the meat tender and rich, and I laid back down on the kitchen tile, and thought of how he would drink me up and make us both full again. * * * When he called to tell me he’d landed, I righted myself from the floor and turned on the burners to a low flame. I curled off the thin disc of fat that had settled on the surface and eyed the vague shapes of beef and tomatoes resting on the bottom. I plunged a large wooden spoon into the pot, the same type I used when I cooked with my grandmother. The stew warmed slowly, the meat and vegetables rising with the broth’s current. Brown climbed up the handle to my fist. When we ate it the first time it was similarly aggressive, heating us up until we were flushed, and the dampness on our necks was seasoned with the same ingredients. I spooned a cube of meat and bit into it. The flavor was there, but the peppery juices squirmed out, and what remained was like a wrung-out old towel. It went around and around in my mouth until it separated into strings of flesh and chunks of fat and I choked it up when I tried to swallow. I don’t know what went wrong. There wasn’t enough of something. I’d used all the ingredients, and wasn’t sure what to add. I had bullion, but that would throw the salt content. I had truffle oil, but that would have just floated on the top. I had wine, but we wouldn’t have had enough to drink. I stirred and stirred, hoping to find some flavor from the bottom. But none came. I studied the recipe and knew I had done everything just the way I was supposed to. I felt his line veering toward me on the map, a bullet intent on connecting. If there wasn’t something for him to hit, he’d pass right by. I considered throwing the stew out, because I didn’t want him to think I hadn’t tried hard enough or to give him something weak and empty. The smell of the stew would linger and confuse him. And what if I hadn’t tried hard enough, or had forgotten how to? * * * I took off my socks and pants and left them and the rest of my clothing in a neat pile in the bedroom. I straightened up the living room and put all the dishes in the sink. I turned off the lights, and lit a cluster of candles. The stew splashed over my head as I lowered myself into the pot. I curled up on the bottom, my head just below the surface. My eyes didn’t sting when I opened them even though there was plenty of onion. My skin softened and my hair tangled in the warm liquid. I bit into a carrot. It was perfectly firm in the middle. He should be home any minute now.
ANYA YURCHYSHYN’S work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Noon, Ploughshares, Guernica, Elimae, On the Bus and Mod Art.